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Undercover Showtunes #4: Jess McLeod & Brian J. Nash

New York Musical Theatre Festival concludes its first-ever Spring Concert Series with "Undercover Showtunes" on Monday, June 18 at 7PM at The Zipper Factory (336 W 37th St.) in Manhattan.

"Undercover Showtunes" is a unique concert comprised of pop and rock songs that weren't written for musicals, but sound as if they might have been – songs that tell a story, create a character, paint a full, vivid portrait as a great song in a musical is meant to do.

For more information on "Undercover Showtunes" and purchase tickets visit the show website at NYMF.org.  Tickets are $50 and $90 with post-concert cast party included by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting online.  Discounts are available here.

Jess McLeod (Associate Director of Programming NYMF) and Brian J. Nash (Musical Director) are two of the many talented show-business types organizing "Undercover Showtunes."  BroadwayWorld.com's Eugene Lovendusky, based in San Francisco, got the opportunity to chat with McLeod and Nash about their up-coming event and their past and future stage and show-business experiences…

Eugene Lovendusky: I love the premise of the "Undercover Showtunes" concert! Who thought it up and what are you most looking forward to at the evening?

Jess McLeod: It started out of our approach to the Ben Folds concerts. As performers would troop in for rehearsal and comment on the theatricality of Folds's songs (both those who had known them before and those who'd never heard of him) we'd always end up engaged in conversations about other pop/rock songwriters we wished had written different or original musicals.  From the more-established like The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Elton John; to the less-established like The Decemberists, Stephin Merritt because of the backbone of rich, detailed storytelling to their music and lyrics.  Then as I rooted around for additional concert ideas for the Spring Series, I thought a smorgasbord of all-time great pop/rock songs might be a nice complement to focusing on a single artist's work, and we were off and running.  And the whole thing's gonna be fabulous!  Natascia Diaz, Merle Dandridge and Lauren Molina just joined the concert and are gonna treat you to a little Alanis Morissette, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Marc Cohn and Lennon/McCartney... I'll leave it to your readers to guess the songs!

Eugene: Some musical theatre fans feel they simply cannot find anything better than the music, lyrics and orchestrations showtunes provide… especially not on the radio.  How do you feel about this opinion and what kinds of music do you know of outside of musical theatre (like those presented at "Undercover Showtunes") that might tickle their fancy?

Jess: And some pop/rock fans feel that they can't connect to and have no interest in showtunes!  But think about how many people have obsessively wondered who the Walrus was, or Jude, or where Eleanor Rigby came from, or if Elton John and Bernie Taupin invented or knew Captain Fantastic.  They're not so different the showtune-lovers who've done an exhaustive breakdown of the references in "I'm Still Here," or who've made a point of finding out the real "Frank and Mary" are in that stray lyric in Company.  Pop/rock and showtune lovers share a love for good stories, lyrics and characters, and "Undercover Showtunes" celebrates that.

Eugene: What kind of music were you raised on?

Brian J. Nash: Like most little gay boys growing up in the 80s, I was obsessed with Deborah Gibson and Tiffany; but then graduated to Les Miserables after being obsessed with musical theatre and opera for a very long time. I got very heavily into Tori Amos and opened it up to all matter of mid-90s female angsty singer-songwriterdom.

Jess: I'm sort of a musically-challenged child of the 80s.  My parents weren't terribly keen on popular music, so I grew up ingesting The Beatles, Elton John, Cat Stevens and Jesus Christ Superstar in large quantities.

Eugene: And what kind of music do you find yourself most often listening to today?

Brian: Since I majored in opera in college, work mainly in theatre today and have a rock band, my iPod is incredibly confusing to anyone who flips through it.  Put it on shuffle and Maria Callas will be followed by Courtney Love, then Brigadoon. No, really.

Jess: I recently moved up to Inwood, which provides me with a good twelve hours of commuting/listening pleasure on a daily basis.  I often find that whatever I'm in the mood for is the exact opposite of what I was just listening to.  Caroline, or Change, The Decemberists, Barry White, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, The Faces, Sunday in the Park with George, Peaches & Herb, and so on...

Eugene: Jess, as Associate Director of Programming for NYMF, you have a magnificent track-record with the organization. Tell us a little more about what it is you do for NYMF and some of the significant programs you've directed!

Jess: Well, gosh.  Thanks.  "Associate Director of Programming" encompasses overseeing a handful of large projects scattered throughout the year.  I'm technically the Literary Manager of NYMF, so I recruit our Grand Jury (of Theatre Luminaries), oversee our truly excellent team of readers and the Next Link Project evaluation process and scout potential Invited Works.  This year I also curated the Spring Concert Series: "More Unauthorized Musicology of Ben Folds," "Broadway Battle of the Bands" and "Undercover Showtunes." And spearheaded The NYMF Dramaturgy Program, a unique new addition to The Next Link Project.  We're always trying to identify more resources we can offer our artists, and good dramaturgy is an essential and often-overlooked contributing factor to the success of new musicals.  Ten top-notch New York dramaturges are generously offering their advice and support to our 18 Next Link writing teams, whose shows are in various stages of development and whose work has, in some cases, never been produced before.  It's pretty exciting – making sure our writers are able to maximize the developmental opportunity NYMF provides is hugely important to me and the rest of the staff, and the Dramaturgy Program is a critical step in that direction.

Eugene: What does the NYMF strive to provide New York audiences?

Jess: Good new musicals and social events catered to those who love good new musicals.  As we're all sick of hearing but (unfortunately) must continue to hear, the economics of producing new musicals in New York, from the innovative and envelope-pushing to the wonderfully traditional, have grown more and more limiting in recent years.  NYMF fills that void, and has a darned good time doing it.

Eugene: I've read and heard from so many various performers how special it is to be involved with NYMF… either in a one-night-only concert or to star in a fresh new show.  Why do you think actors (large and small) come back to NYMF again and again?

Jess: The gift bags.  No, seriously – what we've tried to do at NYMF, especially with the Spring Concert Series, is remind the theatre community (and its friends) that we're all in the same boat.  Nobody's in theatre for the money, which means that we all, somewhat desperately, love it.  We want it to survive and flourish.  That's a pretty powerful thing; not just for the writers but for the performers who are co-creating this new work by bringing it to life on-stage.  NYMF really does celebrate musical theatre of the past, present and future, and I like to think that artists return to work with us because they believe in that cause, because we do fun, interesting one-offs and full productions that afford them unique performance opportunities. For example, when else will you get the chance to see Mary Faber sing Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" as a cracked-out Alice? And because they know how much we value their contributions to the process.

Eugene: What have you enjoyed most with the first-ever Spring Concert Series?

Jess: Watching performers I admire to no end perform songs I've loved for years and have a pretty fantastic time doing it! I'm kind of a kid in a candy store.  Only it's my candy store.  And my candy.  Delicious, showtune-flavored candy...

Eugene: Great metaphor! Brian, how important is it for you to be involved with the New York Musical Theatre Festival?

Brian: I think NYMF is doing really important work in getting new material out before an audience, which is so valuable for writers and producers, letting them know how people respond to their work in its early stages. You learn so much having your work responded to by an audience who comes in cold, and NYMF and the other festivals do so much to nurture the writer in that way.

Eugene: What is your previous experience with NYMF, if any?

Brian: I music directed But I'm A Cheerleader in the 2005 festival, and also music directed the two Ben Folds concerts prior to working on "Undercover Showtunes."

Eugene: How did you first find yourself behind the piano as a music director? What do you enjoy most about such a vital and creative role?

Brian: I ended up music directing when I was 16.  My all-white Catholic high school was doing The Wiz, and I thought it was absurd, so I put up my won production of Jesus Christ Superstar; which I directed, music directed, and produced. It was hilarious.  I think the musical director role is always a bit overlooked, but is such an important part of the creative process. At the end of the day, it's the actor onstage and the conductor in the pit who are making the dramatic choices together to give the audience the experience. Coming from a performance background, I love working with actors to find those moments, and giving them the freedom to do what they need to do to find their path through a song. I'm also a huge fan when playing an orchestrating of somehow integrating the dramatic subtext into the instrumental work. It's a subtle way of letting the audience know what's up.

Eugene: You recently music directed, orchestrated and co-produced Silence! The Musical.  What was it like helming such a large and original project?

Brian: Silence! is kinda my baby. We went from eight songs on a website to full production in 6 months, and that experience was something I wouldn't trade for anything. We sold out every performance before we even opened at the Fringe, and the community was so kind to the show. At least five times a week, people come up to me to tell me how they were dying to see it, but couldn't get in.  And that's almost two years after the Fringe performances! That means so much to me... and they'll get a chance to see it soon. More to come...

Eugene: NYMF 2005 fans had fun with But I'm a Cheerleader the musical.  Tell us more about that!

Brian: Cheerleader was such a great experience, working on such a huge-ass original musical based on a film I really enjoyed in high school. The cast was unreal, and Bill Augustin is an incredibly talented writer. The choreography was killer, and the whole production was really smart, which is so my thang!

Eugene: What can fans hope to see (or hear) you in/directing next?

Brian: Two days after the concert, I'll be composing for The ATrainPlays, a 24-hour musical project at New World Stages. It's such a cool thing, and the cast this time around is unbelievable:  Cady Huffman, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Darius DeHaas, Tracie Thoms. I'm playing on the Rosie cruise again this year (my favorite gig ever), and I'm co-hosting Mostly Sondheim, the Duplex's musical theatre open mic, every Friday night. I've got some production work coming up, so check back here for more info.

Jess: I'm actually going back up to Williams College, my alma mater, to direct a new piece by Williams/NYU alum Marjorie Duffield, and then I'll be back for big last push toward the Festival.  I'm also adapting The Corn Maiden, this Joyce Carol Oates horror/cautionary tale/drama, which I'm hoping to mount later this year.  It's sort of a break/departure from the musical theatre frenzy.  And there's a handful of new musical pots, all boiling away merrily and awaiting a push to the front burner.

Eugene: It sounds like you both have your talented hands full! And you're providing New York audiences with truly unique and fun experiences! Thanks very much for your time and have a fantastic concert June 18!

Photos: Brian J. Nash (headshot courtesy www.BrianJNash.com);  Brian J. Nash with Larry O'Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Natalie Douglas (ATrainPlays), 2005 (by Linda Lenzi); Brian J. Nash with Julie Garnye, 2005 (by Linda Lenzi); Brian J. Nash with Julie Garnye, 2005 in a reading of Silence! The Musical (by Linda Lenzi)


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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)